Not much scares Curtis Lazar. He has a never-surrender will and rarely presses the off button as he challenges for loose pucks all over the ice.
Lazar met his match the other day in Copenhagen, where Team Canada is housed until the 38th IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championships begin Boxing Day in Malmö, Sweden.
The Edmonton Oil Kings’ centre had no chance to fight back as the Canadians visited the world-class Tivoli Gardens amusement park in Denmark.
“We were told it actually was the first amusement park ever created (built in 1843, second-oldest in world),” Lazar told The Morning Star. “We all rode some pretty large and frightening rides and that type of thing really allowed for us to take our guard down and get to know each other better. The quicker we become a team and family the more success we will have.”
The Vernon product and linemate Jonathan Drouin were healthy scratches as Canada grounded Finland 4-2 in exhibition play Friday. Reading between the lines, head coach Brent Sutter has already pencilled in Lazar on his starting roster. Canada released Kelowna Rockets’ defenceman Damon Severson and Medicine Hat Tigers’ forwared Hunter Shinkaruk Friday, and must cut one more forward by Christmas Day.
Canada finished fourth last year, the first time in 15 years they failed to claim a medal. Canada’s 15 gold medals ranks the country first.
While resumés count perhaps more than current playing levels, Lazar rises to the top in both categories. He rung up 21 goals and 37 points in just 27 games with the Oil Kings after showing well in pre-season action with the Ottawa Senators, who drafted him 17th overall last summer in New Jersey.
He helped Canada strike gold in the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in the Czech Republic and enjoyed a stellar playoff run as Edmonton reached the 2012 Memorial Cup in Quebec.
The ever-smiling Lazar captained Team B.C. to gold at the 2011 Canada Winter Games, breaking Steven Stamkos’ snipe record with a dozen goals and besting Sidney Crosby’s points mark with 17.
Lazar will not be expected to shatter Peter Forsberg’s eye-popping 31-point showing in 1993 for host Sweden, but rather be a work of art on the art of work under the no-nonsense Sutter.
“Coach Sutter is one heck of a coach,” said Lazar, who turns 19 on Feb. 2. “His resumé speaks for itself and what really impresses me is the attention to detail and patience he conveys. He is a player’s coach, we love to compete for him because he cares for every single one of his players. In saying that, there is a standard to meet and if we aren’t performing then he will call us in and let us know.”
Lazar can’t say enough about Drouin, a superstar left winger with the Halifax Mooseheads drafted third overall last June by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Drouin is incredible. He is a magician with the puck but what separates him from the others is his willingness to compete and his passion. He just loves the game. Nic Petan (Portland Winterhawks and Jets’ pick) is the centre on the line, and like Drouin, Petan has the ability to attack seams and work his vision to find his teammates.
“For myself, I am the biggest on the line so my job will be to get in on the forecheck and retrieve pucks. I’m playing with two highly-skilled playmakers and I consider myself a shot-first type of player so anytime I can get open around the net I know the puck will be coming my way.”
Lazar was on a line with Quebec Major Junior offensive wizards Anthony Mantha (Red Wings’ property) and Charles Hudon (Montreal draft) when Canada grounded the CIS University All-Stars 3-0 before heading to Copenhagen.
“We gave them nothing,” Lazar told The Morning Star, one day after the game, from Toronto. “It was a really good game for us playing the systems Sutter has in place. It’s a 1-3-1 trap in the neutral zone which doesn’t let the other team get going.”
Lazar loved Sutter’s old-school practice earlier this week when the players went through the gauntlet, skating down the side wall and getting hammered every couple of feet.
“The gauntlet is a classic. I haven’t done it since I was first starting to hit and this time around it was quite different. Everyone is solid and it took a lot to make it down the ice. Coach Sutter definitely got his point across about us needing to be a gritty, hard-nosed team. We know we can’t win on just skill.”
Rockets’ longtime GM Bruce Hamilton, in his first year on Canada’s management team, said they were not assembling an all-star team but a team for the world juniors.
Everybody will have a distinct job and Lazar is high on captain Scott Laughton’s role. Laughton plays for the Oshawa Generals and was drafted two years ago by the Philadelphia Flyers.
“Scott Laughton is a great leader. Since day one in Lake Placid during the summer evaluation camp, he was going out of his way to introduce himself to everyone which really brought us together. He has a great work ethic on the ice and isn’t afraid to speak up in the room as well.”
Vernon’s George Fargher, a full-time scout with the Senators, expects Sutter to play Lazar in any situation.
“He’s got a good all-around game, he’s a real competitive kid and he can play in all zones and brings character along with speed and tenacity.”
Lazar, whose parents, Dave and Karen, will be in Sweden, says the main difference from the Memorial Cup is that this team is built strictly for a 12-day event so there is little time to prepare.
“We all come from different club teams and hometowns from around the country and that’s what makes it special. The tournament isn’t much different; every team is elite and has a chance at winning any game and there is no room for error.
“I treat any game the same no matter the stage. I play to my strengths and do my best to make a difference every time I step out onto the ice. This tournament is going to be a lot of fun because we have an entire country supporting us. The world juniors is a part of most every Canadian’s holidays and to be participating in it is very special to me.”
The highly likeable 6-foot, 190-pounder says the Canadians are living in the present with the Boxing Day opener against Germany approaching.
“We aren’t looking at the big picture right now. Our focus is on the process and each day ahead of us. What Canada has been able to do in the past isn’t really on our mind at this point. We know we have the right guys to be successful and it’s just a matter of putting in the work, committing and having some fun.”
As for keeping the team laughing and feeling comfortable, Lazar said: “The jokester would have to be Drouin. Not many pranks have been pulled but he loves stirring the pot and getting under everyone’s skin. It keeps us loose.”